Kerry: Assad has to go because he is the magnet for terrorists

assad ISIS magnet

assad ISIS magnetSecretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and its allies are expanding their efforts to curtail Islamic State’s finances and its appeal to young Muslims.

There are signs that U.S.-led airstrikes have broken the group’s momentum, Kerry said in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg View columnist Al Hunt for the “Charlie Rose” program on PBS. The group remains on the offensive in Syria, such as in the town of Kobani, and in Iraq, where some Sunni leaders report mass killings of tribesmen who opposed the extremists.

While Kerry presented a positive view of events on the ground, the administration’s efforts have been criticized as weak and inadequate, particularly in Syria, where the U.S. has indirectly strengthened President Bashar Assad in a civil war that’s claimed more than 200,000 lives.

The air strikes have had “some effect, but have done too little and done it too slowly,” according to ananalysis this week by Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They have failed to halt the Islamic State gains in Iraq, and have involved steady mission creep in Syria at the expense of air operations in Iraq without reaching the scale of effort where they have had decisive tactical effects.”

Kerry said there is “no question in my mind” that Islamic State’s momentum has been stopped, citing what he said were successful efforts to thwart the militants in Iraq at Sinjar Mountain, Haditha Dam and in Amirli, a northern town that had been under siege.

Expanding Strikes

“Each one of those we successfully stopped, and in addition we have begun to take strikes to their command-and-control headquarters, to their oil production facilities” which they use to make money, Kerry said in the interview for “Charlie Rose,” which also airs on Bloomberg Television.

“Step-by-step, that is going to deteriorate their command and control, their training centers, their supplies,” he said.

U.S. officials consider efforts to reduce financing and recruitment vital next steps toward weakening Islamic State, whose flows of new fighters and revenue from oil smuggling and other sources have facilitated its takeover of large swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria.

“We are working on the measures that need to be taken in concert with many other countries to close down avenues for banking, for transfers,” as well as to identify and block large donors and “to identify the means by which they are collecting money in smaller sums but from larger numbers of people,” Kerry said.

Curbing Financing

The U.S. will join other nations at a Bahrain conference in November on curbing financing by terrorist groups such as Islamic State, Kerry said.

The extent to which such steps will constrain Islamic State is unclear because intelligence analysts say the group is largely self-financing through oil smuggling, taxes, bank robberies and extortion.

At the same time, the U.S. is working with Muslim nations on a “delegitimization” effort aimed at Islamic State, as the group draws recruits from as far away as China and Russia as well as from Arab nations and Europe.

That entails having Islamic religious figures speak out “to discredit any claims whatsoever” that Islamic State makes about its “so-called legitimacy with respect to Islam,” Kerry said.

Yet those steps fail to resolve what Kerry said remains a key element drawing young Sunni Muslim fighters — opposition to Assad, who’s responsible for far more deaths than Islamic Front is. Most of the Syrian rebels are Sunnis — that nation’s religious majority — who oppose Assad and his allies, whose Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

‘The Magnet’

Kerry said Assad is “the magnet for most of these fighters coming in” and said that “you will not have peace in Syria ultimately as long as Assad remains the focus of power” in Syria.

Critics say President Barack Obama made a mistake by prioritizing the fight against Islamic State over dealing with the underlying Syrian civil war.

The U.S. wants a negotiated deal to end Assad’s rule, though short-lived talks collapsed months ago.

“After the Geneva peace process collapsed last February, I’m not sure there is an American strategy for Syria now,” former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said this week at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Talking With Russia

Kerry said the U.S. is talking with Russia and Persian Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia about “how we can deal with Syria in a more concerted way.”

The U.S. has limited its airstrikes to Islamic State targets in Syria, while drawing up plans to train vetted, moderate Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia and Turkey next year.

Obama’s reluctance to move directly against the Assad regime has complicated relations with members of the anti-Islamic State coalition such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which see an urgency in removing Assad. U.S. officials have said that forcing Assad out without a political deal would lead to the collapse of all state institutions, as has happened in Iraq and Libya with disastrous consequences.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Oct. 30 that the “complications of Syria” include that Assad has gained from the U.S. priority on fighting Islamic State.

“Yes, Assad derives some benefit of that,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.

The U.S. is looking for ways to increase pressure on Assad to allow for a political transition, Kerry said.

“Assad ultimately has got to go because he is the magnet, and you cannot stop all of this if he is there,” Kerry said.